Aviation education takes flight in Polk County in many ways, supporting a growing industry that provides an $878 million economic impact to the area.

The county’s aviation leaders, working together as part of a Central Florida Development Council’s aviation committee, hope to keep growing this sector of the economy.

“Part of that strategy focuses on what’s already occurring,” said Javier Marin, director of business development and global trade at the Central Florida Development Council. “We are educating the future workforce for aviation right here in Polk County.”

Multiple aerospace education programs exist in Polk County, each enhancing education in their own ways. One trains the pilots of tomorrow while another prepares mechanics who will keep their planes in the air. Another offers an aircraft dispatcher certification program. They work together to ensure Polk County remains an aviation leader in Central Florida and the state.

Central Florida Aerospace Academy

The Central Florida Aerospace Academy at Kathleen High School is based at Lakeland Linder International Airport, where students get specific aeronautical instruction, including flight training, aircraft maintenance and avionics. The school opened in August 2008 and taught 340 students last school year. It expects enrollment to increase to about 375 for the 2019-2020 school year.

According to its website, CFAA “is a unique career and technical STEM public high school academy developed to provide students with an interest in aviation, aerospace and engineering technologies an opportunity to participate in industry-related electives, earn industry certifications and licenses, and complete dual enrollment/advanced placement college credit, all while completing their high school education.” As an academy, one of its goals is to respond to the needs of industry training students to fulfill talent needs within the sector.

“Aviation and aerospace are important industries for Polk County, and our state. There is tremendous growth potential in terms of jobs, so it is critical for us as a School District to make sure we have programs that prepare students for these careers,” said Superintendent Jacqueline M. Byrd. “The Central Florida Aerospace Academy allows us to engage students at the high school level with hands-on and high-tech courses that enable students to pursue a wealth of opportunities in the aviation world.”

Traviss Technical College

Traviss Technical College offers high school and adult vocational students a chance to earn a Federal Aviation Administration certification as an aviation maintenance technician through its programs in Avionics and Airframe Mechanics. Those who graduate often are entering Polk State’s Aerospace program to train for an increasing number of jobs at the county’s four airports, which are expanding their cargo transport operations.

Southeastern University Aviation Pilot Program

The Lakeland university launched its private pilot ground and flight courses in spring 2019 as electives, then added Instrument Rating to its summer 2019 offerings, said Joe Childs, director of Aviation Programs. Its goal is to “provide affordable and accessible degrees that prepare professional pilots,” according to the SEU website.

“In fall 2019, we intend to offer associate and bachelor degree programs,” pending accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, Childs said. “We have had several students in elective courses, and they are progressing well.”

SEU started the aviation program to address the significant shortage of pilots. Boeing, which produces the Pilot & Technician Outlook, a respected industry forecast of personnel demand, estimates nearly 800,000 new civil aviation pilots will be needed over the next 20 years. “This is a global problem, and once we gain the approval to issue F1 Visas for the aviation degree programs, we expect to admit enough international students that we’ll have to expand our operations,” Childs said. “This will bring global awareness to SEU and Polk County.”

SEU partners with International Aero Academy at Lakeland Linder for flight training. Steven Markhoff, one of the owners of the academy, said a lack of financing to train new pilots is a huge impediment. So he and his partner developed a plan, then partnered with SEU, to frontload flight training instead of spreading it through four years, saving students thousands of dollars. “They they can work as flight instructors, making money and building hours, while finishing college,” Markhoff said. “When they graduate, they are ready to go to the airlines.”

Three students signed up for the spring electives; 25 for the summer, he said. “It will grow from there for the fall. The limitation is flight instructors and airplanes. Children of airline pilots are signing up — they are recognizing the value of what we’re creating.”

Polk State College Aerospace Program

Polk State College offers students a chance to earn certifications as flight instructors or multi-engine and instrument flight instructors, as well as associate’s degrees in Professional Pilot Science and Aerospace Administration and a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Sciences.

In February 2019 it started an aircraft dispatcher certification program, the only such program west of Interstate 95, designed to answer an industry need. Students who spend less than $5,000 on the six-week course will be eligible to work at jobs with starting salaries of nearly $48,000.

In March 2019, 287 students were enrolled in Polk State’s four degree programs. So far, 95 students have graduated from the degree programs.

“As opportunities such as international trade continue to grow in Polk County, Polk State is committed to responding to the aviation industry’s needs for highly skilled pilots and aerospace technicians that will ensure we remain on the forefront of expanding such economic development opportunities, boosting our local economy, creating jobs, and further connecting Polk County to the rest of the world,” Polk State President Angela Garcia Falconetti said.